SU Podium FAQ

Solutions to frequently asked questions
By Jim Allen

Table of Contents

Podium is the only plug-in to run natively within SketchUp, and the only one to have a true 'one click' photorealistic output. Although it is about as simple as you can expect photorealistic rendering to get, a number of repeated queries have arisen on the forum. There are a number of considerations which need to be addressed to get the most out of the software. These are not complicated, but are worth outlining.

This FAQ assumes that you know your way around SketchUp, and know how to display the information panels for things like Layers, Shadows and Materials. If you can not do these things, then Podium is probably a step too far for you at the moment, because you need to have a certain level of ability (although by no means an expert) to be productive with Podium.

Install and licensing issues

Common install problems.

The most common problem encountered after installing Podium is not being able to find Podium from the Plugins menu inside SketchUp. If you can not find Podium from the Plugins menu, it has not been installed correctly. The most common reason for this is that Podium was installed in the wrong folder. The recommended solution is to Uninstall Podium as instructed above. Then reinstall it. Make sure SketchUp is closed when you reinstall Podium. Pay careful attention to what folder Podium gets installed. It must be installed in the \Google SketchUp 6 or \SketchUp 5 folder. Do not install it in the \Plugins folder. For more about install please visit the help page.

Licensing questions

Network licensing and the software license agreement. SU Podium's software licensing agreement allows one customer to purchase and install one license on more than one machine. However, the number of concurrent users must equal the number of SU Podium licenses. In this sense, it is very similar to SketchUp's network licensing. In other words, if you have a network of 10 computers but will only have 5 concurrent SU Podium users, the software license agreement allows you to install Podium on all 10 computers. But please note that we do not take this licensing agreement lightly. Future versions of SU Podium will have network monitoring software.

What's the difference between the evaluation version and the full version? The evaluation version only supports image sizes of 230 X 150 and 640 X 480. Furthermore, the evaluation version expires at the end of each calendar month. (With version 1.4.1, you are allowed to download and install Podium more than once.) These two items are the only difference between the evaluation version and the full version.

What's the difference between the full commercial version and the student/ teacher version? There is no difference. However, you are required to be enrolled in an academic institution as a full-time student or hold a teaching position to qualify for the student/ teacher version. Cadalog, Inc. does require verification of your student or teacher status before a serial number is sent to you.

Basics

First of all it is worth giving an overview of what Podium does, and an insight into how it works. The most obvious thing to mention is that Podium is integrated into SketchUp's normal workflow. That is, you set up your model geometry, lighting, textures, sun and site location in SketchUp in the normal way, and Podium uses this data for its renders without requiring any complex setup parameter and render settings. Currently there are just 2 controls and 6 settings to consider.

The most important setting is the render quality. When set at zero (i.e. configured entirely for speed) you get a faster result, but quality suffers. This gives a fairly good result in a reasonable amount of time.  Although render speed is quite reasonable, many users ask for faster rendering. This is constantly being reviewed as one of the most important priorities.

The other slider controls 'jagginess' (the technical term is ‘antialising’), where jaggy edges are smoothed by refining and blurring the edges. This can dramatically improve the sharpness of images, and increasing its value and increases render time but not as dramatically as the quality/speed slider.

Initially you should consider setting the quality and jaggy sliders at around 60%. If your images have splotches or odd artifacts, try turning the quality up before posting to the forum!

The remaining things to configure are the render size, output image type and output image destination. Render size varies depending on whether you have the full or evaluation version. The full version supports the following resolutions:- 1024x768, 2048x1536 and 3076x2034, whereas the evaluation version just offers 640x480 along with the 230x150 preview size. It is worth noting that you can currently use the evaluation version in exactly the same way as the full version, as the output images are not protected or watermarked. Obviously the larger images supported by the registered version will take longer to render, but in every other respect the 2 versions are identical.

Exterior Lighting / SketchUp sun

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Podium understands SketchUp's standard sun position and colour, and will use it if you turn shadows on. If, in the rendered images, your sun appears to be coming from a different direction from SketchUp, turn all layers on, select all (Ctrl A) and then select copy. Open a new drawing. Set up the location again and paste the objects into the new file. This will also cure a number of other problems, including camera views which aren’t displaying as they should.

Lighting level is controlled by adjusting the shadow darkness setting on the shadow dialog. Note that the shadow lightness slider has no influence for a Podium render.  Try adjusting the darkness slider to see the effect it has.

If you don't appear to have directional shadows, then they aren't turned on. Podium doesn't activate SketchUp shadows automatically, you need to click on the shadow button on the toolbar indicated in figure 1. You don't have to rely on SketchUp's sun, and in fact some of the nicest gallery images do not. You can create rectangular faces and make them light emitters, or use point light sources instead. These techniques are probably a little advanced for a basic FAQ, and will be covered elsewhere.

Environment and Background Colours

Podium can use SketchUp's sky and ground colours, but results are variable and need a little attention to detail to get right. Night time renders with the SU sky just look weird though! Initially it is probably better to start by using a custom background colour. For normal sky, try using the following settings:- Red 119, Green 215, and Blue 255.  For a typical overcast sky, try using Red 161, Green 252 and Blue 255.
You can see the the different results in the images below. The time, date and shadow darkness are the same, the only difference is the background colour and how it is set.

Note 1. For the technically-minded, these are representative colour temperatures. You can read more about this here:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_temperature

Fig.1 - A daytime render using the SketchUp sun with the background colour set to pale blue.
Fig.1 - A daytime render using the SketchUp sun with the background colour set to pale blue.


Fig.2 - A daytime render using the SketchUp sun and sky and ground colours. Note the image noise.

You can also apply a background image to either a curved or flat vertical plane behind your image. But be careful to position it so that shadows are not cast directly onto it.

Other light sources

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When you want to create a light source, there are two basic types; glowing geometry and more complex simulations of real world lighting. Podium supports both but currently in a very simple way. First of all, if you want to fake daylight through windows or show light fittings during the day that glow, then you just create your geometry, set the colour and light strength and you're done. This is very simplistic in that it makes the surface glow with the colour that has been assigned to it, but doesn't actually project/distribute light in the way that you might expect. The image below shows the effect of this kind of lighting setup. The first image shows how things are modelled in SketchUp. There is the geometry for bollard fitting, which includes a glass lens around the light source, and a simple rectangle representing the bulb. The light emitted from the bulb makes the glass lens glow.


Fig.3 - A simple illuminated bollard model in SketchUp.


Fig.4 - The result rendered in Podium.

When you want the effect of a light fitting with a spread of light however things are a bit more complex. You have 2 elements to consider, a light source and its spread of light. Podium's render engine isn't advanced enough (yet) for you to define some geometry as a certain type of light source with a certain power, and then create a reasonably accurate pool of light from this information. Instead you have to create some geometry which describes the shape of the pool of light created. If you want to see something which depicts the actual light source (in effect, the 'bulb'), you have to add some geometry for this too.

For the spread of light you have to use what Podium calls 'omni lights'. This means that you model the shape of the pool of light, make it a group, and then assign colour and light strength. Any group with geometry which is set to be light emitting (with the Light slider) will not display the geometry, but display as distributed light. So, if you want to create a light fitting in Podium, you first start by modelling your light fitting. Then you create the bit of the light that glows. The shape of this bulb or 'glowing bit' is probably better modelled as just a simple rectangular shape to speed rendering. You have to assign the colour of the light which is a straightforward matter of setting the colour in SketchUp, and the amount of light emitted, which is done wth the Light slider. Next you have to model the shape of the spread of light. As mentioned above, you create your shape, make it a group, and then set the colour and light strength. For a point light, this spread ought to be a sphere. For an uplighter or downlighter you could choose to model a cone shape instead. It isn’t strictly correct, but it sort of simulates the beam effect you see in the rain or fog.

In the images below, you can see how this effect is modelled in SketchUp, and what the rendered result looks like.


Fig.5 - The same bollard, but with the grouped geometry representing the light spread.


Fig.6 - The result rendered in Podium.

Figure 7 below shows the difference between the two different lighting effects. Both bollards are identical apart from the lighting. The left hand image shows the effect of the more complex lighting method.


Fig.7 - A direct comparison between the two lighting methods.

At this point it is probably worth noting that a little layer organisation in SketchUp makes things much easier. In the above examples, the bollards are modelled on one layer, with the glass, light sources and light spread sphere all on separate layers. This makes it easier to isolate individual pieces of geometry by turning layers off so that you can adjust the glow of the light source easily. Of course you can hide and unhide your geometry which is fine if you have just a couple of fittings. With quite a few fittings though, turning a layer off and on is much quicker.

Finally, at risk of confusing people, you can create a component of the light geometry, source and spread. Putting the grouped geometry representing the light spread inside a component does not affect the way it renders.

Textures and Materials

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There are only a few things to bear in mind when assigning textures for use with Podium.

1. Render Modes

First of all, there are two rendering modes, by layer or by object. Podium supports "white card model" type renders as well as fully textured renders.

If you choose materials by layer option from the layer dialog, Podium will render all faces with the default material colour, but apply its subtle global illumination and shadow effects. Rather usefully, even in this render mode, Podium recognises which materials you want to be transparent, so that if in the colour by object mode, an object has been set as transparent, even in render by layer mode, these objects will still appear transparent. This is useful for massing and shading studies. As with transparency, lights tend to work pretty much the same in 'colour by layer' mode, which is also quite helpful.

If you compare Figure 8 below with figure 1 above you can see the difference between the colour by layer and colour by object modes.


Fig.9 - An identical scene to Figure 1 but rendered with colour by layer.

In order for objects to be rendered properly, first of all it is better to assign materials directly to all faces, instead of assigning them just to the block or component itself as you do for light spread. This is easy enough; you select the group or component, double click to edit, then triple click to select all sub-objects. You can then just assign your material as normal.

2. Face normals

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Secondly, face normals should be orientated correctly. For people who aren't familiar with the term, some 3D programs (like SketchUp) have geometry which has a front face and a back face. The front face is known as the 'normal'. If you have geometry where the 'back' face points outward, under some circumstances you can have problems rendering in that the texture won't render. One place this can happen is window openings. There is an easy fix though. Select the object in question. Right click. Choose 'Reverse Faces' and reapply the texture.

Sometimes you will find that your render ‘just works’ and you don’t need to do this. But if you are having trouble with objects which are showing textures in SketchUp but not in Podium, checking the two things above will almost certainly cure the problem. For more information about Front face ('normal') and Back face, click here.

Reflectivity is assigned on a face by face basis. Podium deliberately prevents you from making lots of objects reflective because it can increase render time dramatically. If you compare Figure 9 below with Figure 1 above, there is not that much difference in the appearance, but render time has increased from just under 3 minutes to over 9 minutes. The difference between the two is that the ground plane and all boxes have reflective surfaces in the second image.


Fig.9 - An identical scene to Figure 1 but with reflectivity assigned to all surfaces.

For most purposes, you probably won't need to set the reflection value to more than 15 for surfaces like glass or water.

Render Speed

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Apart from the obvious means of adjusting the quality and jaggy sliders, there are numerous other means of increasing render speed. Although many of these are also obvious, they are often overlooked. For example, the key to speed is simplicity. Only model what you need in your scene. You can organise different parts of your model by layer, or just simply hide them.

It is always worth purging files of unused textures and components. This in itself won’t necessarily speed up Podium, but you may well find that you identify extra elements in your model that you don’t need that are hogging memory that would be better used by Podium

There is no doubt that if you want the very best results, the quality of modelling is critical, and the more detail the better, but as we aren’t all working for Pixar, and won’t be seeing our work on a massive screen in high definition, for almost all of us, this won’t be an issue!

In your search for simplicity, it is worth remembering that games designers tend to simplify geometry and add detail with texture maps. For things like paving and boarding, if you are modelling each board because you think you’ll get a more accurate effect, you may well be mistaken. A good texture map will be better probably 95% of the time, and much quicker to render.

Next, try to simplify any components you are using. For example do you really need rounded edges, or cylinders with 24 arc segments? For elements in the background, you can often use extruded rectangles instead of extruded circles. This can reduce polygon count in components by a factor of 500%!

Next you need to consider reflectivity and lighting. As mentioned earlier, more reflective surfaces can really increase rendering time. The same is true with lights. The more you have in your scene, the longer it will take to render. As mentioned previously, the secret to speed is simplicity. The more surface effects you use, the longer your scene will take to render because the CPU has to calculate these surface effects.

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